North Korean Women in Military and Construction Units Suffer Rights Abuses

Demands for sex and forced prostitution are common in the army and construction brigades, sources say.

A North Korean military parade passes statues of former leaders in a file photo.

Despite a decades-old North Korean law asserting equal rights, women serving in the country’s military and construction brigades are routinely abused by their supervisors, with some pressured to provide sexual favors and others forced into prostitution, sources in the country say.

Official guarantees of equal rights for men and women have no real impact in North Korean life, a source in Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Although all North Korean residents are the victims of human rights violations by the [ruling] Party and leadership, the violation of women’s rights is particularly serious,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Beginning in 2013, North Korea has promised promotions within the ruling Korean Workers Party to women who graduate from college and serve in the country’s military, the source said, adding that women who join the army are expected to serve from the age of 17 to 23.

A report prepared by the General Political Bureau of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) and presented in 2015 at a meeting of female officers has revealed the miserable realities of army life, though, RFA’s source said.

In one case, a female company commander in Regiment 316 joined the Korean Workers Party in September 2014 in exchange for sexual favors granted to a superior officer, the source said, citing information presented in the report.

“Even after she joined, though, she was unable to reject the advances of political officials who had promised her continued membership in the Party, and as a result, her family was destroyed,” the source  said.

Constant abuse

In another incident, military forces raided the Yeokjeon district of Pyongson, the capital city of South Pyongan province, and took into custody 22 women working as prostitutes, he said.

“All of them were soldiers except for four college students and another civilian,” he said.

“Female soldiers suffer constant sexual abuse from their male commanders, and they often leave their barracks at night to earn money through prostitution,” the source said.

“This is because of an inadequate supply system in which the General Rear Services Department of the NKPA cannot even solve a shortage of sanitary napkins,” he said.

Meanwhile, women conscripted into the quasi-military construction brigades called “storm troopers” suffer further horrors, a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA.

“Everyone knows that storm trooper commanders above the company level bring women around called the Pleasure Group, and women who reject their commanders’ demands are assigned to the most difficult workplaces,” the source said.

Women assigned to clean up after floods last year in North Hamgyong’s Yonsa county were left unable to bathe at night in spite of being covered each day with mire caused by mudslides, the source said.

“They couldn’t wash during the day because so many men were around, and they couldn’t bathe at night because a garrison of border guards prevented them from approaching the Tumen River,” he said.

Failure to provide

North Korean authorities are failing to provide adequate facilities and supplies for women assigned to service in collective organizations, the source said.

“Although equal rights for both sexes have been guaranteed in North Korea for more than 70 years, it is hard to find another country in which women’s rights are trampled this badly,” he said.

“In order to protect women’s rights, compulsory service in the army and the storm troopers should be immediately abolished,” he said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Richard Finney.